When All You Can Say is “Sí! Sí! Sí!”

by Abby Alleman on September 5, 2014

Early September doesn’t just mark the beginning of the school year for children, it also marks the beginning of language learning for both newcomers as well as those who have been in their adopted countries a long time. Because let’s be honest here – fluency takes a lifetime and more. Trying to get our tongues around sounds that don’t exist in our first language is an exercise of body, mind, and soul. I love the way Abby brings in humor, advice, and the Tower of Babel. May you be greatly encouraged by this post on language learning. You can read more about Abby at the end of the post. –Marilyn

Barcelona

“This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” ~ John 10:6

We were in a hotel in the hills of Barcelona and I was meeting my host family for the first time. I was all smiles and nerves. Although I had taken four years of Spanish in high school (with an excellent teacher) and two semesters of upper level Spanish in college, this was the first time where I was surrounded by native speakers. No matter what they said, all I seemed to be able to say was “Sí! Sí! Sí!”

Looking back, I was probably expressing my excitement at being able to understand anything they said. I was starry-eyed and adventurous. The farm girl who boarded that 747, my first plane ride at 20 years old, to step out into the big wide world beyond my small town. My mom said I went on that plane one person and came back another.

She was right.

Now 20 years later that family truly is my own. I felt alone and frightened, at times, but the doors that were opened through stepping into another world and becoming fluent in its language have radically altered the course of my life. But it’s been a messy road, especially fumbling through the ins and outs of learning to speak a new language.

Whenever I see my host mom she always shares the story of the night it was my turn to clean up the kitchen after the ‘cena’ or dinner (which often happened close to midnight). She had asked me if I would clean the kitchen some night as it was customary for the whole family to take turns. And, of course, I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ Then when my night came and she told me it was my night and would I please clean up, I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ So when the cena was over I rose from the table said ‘Buenas Noches!’ and headed to my room for bed!

My now second family also likes to tell the story of the weekend hiking trip I went on which I thought would be low key and I could easily do in sneakers. My host family asked me several times if I was sure that I wanted to go and I said ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’

Well it turned out to be a gorgeous weekend in the Pyrenees with about 10 other people who were pretty close to Sherpas. They were also a pretty tight group and most spoke the native language of Barcelona which is Catalan and not Castellano (Spanish). So I understood far less than the little I then could.  I also needed to have my hands held by two of these amazing Catalan hikers coming down from most of the heights. I slept one of the nights in a packed shelter with a group of Dutch hikers and someone’s stinky socks in my face!

And there are many more stories, I am sure, about the crazy blonde American girl who could only say ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’

And I laugh because this whole language learning business is full of humility and humor. Both are essential to the journey.

Last week I heard a sermon on the Tower of Babel. It resonated with me as I think of this next language adventure I am on with Hungarian (which is unanimously considered one of the hardest languages in the world and, for me, makes Spanish seem quite easy). The pastor said that when God divided the peoples of the earth through their language He destroyed their unity. It hit me that their collective consciousness was overrun by pride in the comfort zone of knowing the only language spoken. And I immediately had this thought ‘and it’s only the humility of Christ that can overcome that can heal this disunity.’

We cannot survive and succeed in language learning without the Spirit of Christ as our guide. He humbled himself in every way and laid aside the heart language of Heaven to communicate in ways that were consistently misunderstood. And He did it all to redeem us and give us his righteousness so that we can wear Him in the fumbling and bumbling. Because He is our identity we don’t have to be perfect or even good language learners, we just need to be His.

And we need to laugh! We all start out in a new language only able to say ‘Me want water!’ Or ‘Help! We lost!’ Or ‘I go up, over, down, ok?’ We are babies in adult bodies.

My Hungarian language learning has been completely different than studying Spanish. When I moved here long-term I was a mother of two young children and four months pregnant with our third. I had learned a few phrases and some numbers during our internship, but there was no formal schooling as our ministry is based on teaching students conversational English. I had little time to devote to language as a baby was coming! And hardest of all, I was feeling responsible for my kids and unequipped to be their advocate.

But some things remain the same no matter how many languages we learn:

1)       Don’t take yourself too seriously: It really is essential to laugh at yourself–the blunders are a part of every journey. I have many new things to laugh at in learning Hungarian. Like calling ‘legs’, ‘balls’ since there is one letter difference.

2)       Be in community: One of the amazing joys of this language experience is that I am walking it with my husband. We took lessons together in our home and we have laughed and learned and encouraged. Whenever we get together with other Americans who live here, we share fun stories and listen to them too. It all reminds us that we are not alone.

3)       Don’t compare: Everyone learns at their own pace and struggles in different ways while being strong in others. My husband is the better listener(because he does it more) and I am the better speaker(because I do it more). Hmmm…I don’t think that pertains to just Hungarian 😉

4)       Language aptitude is highly overrated: Speaking as someone who others might say is gifted linguistically, I remember that ‘Sí! Sí! Sí!’ Girl all too well. The truth is that it took much more than ability to become and stay fluent for 20 years. It took practice and more practice and falling down and getting back up

5)       Find what works for you/Develop a good plan: Although I learned Spanish traditionally, I have become very outside-the-box with my methods in language-learning. A lot of this is practical as I have only had a few hours/week or less to devote to language learning since we moved to Budapest. We were taught a method during our overseas training with CRU. It is called ‘the Growing Participator Approach’ and uses several non-traditional methods, like TPR, and is modeled after the way we learn our first language. I knew I wanted to learn this way so I came with confidence and implemented the plan.

6)       Don’t give up!!: This is where my husband is my language-learning hero. He just won’t give up no matter how discouraging his day. And he’ll use what he knows. He has learned by listening and speaking and working through miscommunication. And in the process he has shared the Gospel with students all over the city and made friends everywhere. He is always inspiring me to do the same.

7)       Language learning is a spiritual discipline: We are often asked if people speak English here. It seems to imply that if they do then why would we need to learn their language? But that’s not the perspective of Christ. He stepped into culture and time and manifested God’s love through incessantly communicating with humility and determination in the language of the heart. We learn new languages to know Christ more so that He might pour out HIS love through our imperfection that reflects His perfect love.

My hope is that this post would encourage you wherever you are at in your language journey. We are truly in this together!

 If you are new to language learning, what are most anxious or excited about?

And for the many of you who are experienced language learners, do you have any funny stories to share? Or additional words of wisdom and encouragement for those just starting out? 

Let’s encourage one another in this essential part of missionary life!

Abby is a farm girl who found her heart in the city. She can now humbly claim fluency in three languages but it’s the three little ones who call her mama that truly humble her. She and her husband have been ministering to students in Hungary through the ministry of CRU since 2005 and pray continually that their greatest joy would be found in the Gospel. She can be found blogging at www.abigailalleman.com

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/bicycles-balcony-la-sagrera-413761/

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About Abby Alleman

A farm girl at heart, Abigail (Abby) loves the surprising stories God writes. Since her first plane trip at the age of twenty landed her in Barcelona, Spain, Abby knew her life would never be the same. She holds degrees in both Math and Spanish and is a former high school teacher. She has served as a translator and short-term missionary in Latin America and inner city Philadelphia. But her most treasured journey is when her big dreams came crashing to the ground, when heartbreak and humility brought her home to her family, God and eventually right to her husband, Jared. They have worked with the student ministry of CRU for over ten years in both the U.S. and Hungary. She has three small kids and blogs her life and love of story at Abigail Alleman ( www.abigailalleman.com ).

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